Advantages of Bioremediation

Instructor: Angela Hartsock

Angela has taught college Microbiology and has a doctoral degree in Microbiology.

This lesson discusses some advantages of bioremediation including the ability of microorganisms to use a wide variety of pollutants, the speed of their metabolism, and the cost-effectiveness of bioremediation as an option for environmental cleanup.

The Costs and Benefits of Bioremediation

Bioremediation is the use of biological organisms to break down or immobilize environmental contaminants. When humans make a big mess of things, the process of bioremediation can be key to getting things cleaned up and protecting ecosystems. But, like with anything, there are costs and benefits associated with bioremediation. We will leave the costs or disadvantages of bioremediation for another lesson. In this lesson, we will think about the advantages or the benefits of bioremediation.

Life Finds a Way

Most of the time bioremediation is done by microorganisms, like bacteria and fungi, that naturally occur in the environment. These organisms as a group have evolved the ability to exploit or break down almost any chemical compound as long as it's reasonably natural in structure. Many of the chemicals that we end up spilling or disposing in the environment are similar to molecules these organisms have seen before. That means they already have the necessary enzymes, proteins that can bind to chemicals and catalyze their transformation, to attack these chemicals and use them as energy or as materials to support their metabolism.

This is kind of like when you try a new kind of sandwich. Even though it might not be on your everyday menu, you still recognize it as a sandwich and know how to eat it. The same thing happens during bioremediation, as long as there is an organism out there that has the ability to recognize and exploit the compound it will, quite literally, eat it. This is an advantage for bioremediation because it means that frequently there is an organism out there ready and equipped to break down a spilled contaminant.

The Race to Remediate

We can all appreciate the sense of urgency surrounding the cleanup of environmental contamination. We can envision the contaminant getting into water supplies, poisoning wildlife, disrupting human infant physiology, and the list goes on. So, naturally, we want cleanup, or remediation, to be as fast as possible. In many cases, the human interventions aimed are slow, chaotic, or incomplete at best. In contrast, sometimes bioremediation can be incredibly fast.

Just imagine a bunch of kids in a cafeteria banging their forks and spoons and chanting (Feed me! Feed me!). Throw some food in front of them and they will make short work of it. For bioremediation, as long as the organisms have all the nutrients they need, they can rapidly break down the pollutant, in many cases producing completely benign by products. For example, some bacteria break down petroleum, otherwise known as oil, using it for energy and producing carbon dioxide and water. This is a much more ideal scenario than the potentially chaotic human interventions.

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